"From Hell's heart, I stab at thee."
Despite its box office success, 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture' was considered a disappointment by most fans and critics. The film was perceived as being too slow and ponderous, lacking the adventure and excitement expected from a major science fiction movie released in the wake of 'Star Wars'. Counting their receipts, Paramount knew that enough interest in the property remained to justify a sequel. They also knew that they wanted the next movie to be nothing at all like the first. Hoping to jump-start the franchise, the studio hired TV producer Harve Bennet ('The Six Million Dollar Man') and up-and-coming filmmaker Nicholas Meyer ('Time After Time'), neither of whom was all that familiar with 'Star Trek' beforehand. Their mandate: to make a new movie with considerably more action yet a considerably lower budget. Fortunately, the two men rose to the challenge. 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' is almost universally acknowledged as the definitive 'Star Trek' movie.
To familiarize himself with the material, Bennett screened all 79 episodes of the original 'Star Trek' series in a short period of time. He quickly honed in on the relationship between characters Kirk, Spock, and McCoy as the centerpiece of the show. He also found himself drawn to first season episode 'Space Seed', in which the starship Enterprise encounters Khan Noonien Singh (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically-engineered super warrior from the late 20th Century, cryogenically frozen for three centuries until thawed out by Kirk and crew. Having been bred with tremendous ego and ambition, Khan tried to hijack the ship. The episode concluded on an open-ended note, with Khan and his compatriots exiled to an unpopulated planet in a seldom-visited sector of the galaxy. This seemed to Bennett an excellent launching point for the new movie.
As the film begins, Federation starship Reliant has been sent to evaluate an uninhabitable planet as the potential test site for a new terraforming initiative called Project Genesis. Unfortunately, what Captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) and First Officer Chekov (Walter Koenig) don't realize is that the planet isn't as uninhabited as they thought. Khan is there, driven more mad with time and thirsting for revenge against the Captain (now Admiral) James Kirk who abandoned him years earlier. In short order, Khan hijacks the Reliant, attempts to steal the powerful Genesis Device, and lures the starship Enterprise into a sneak attack.
Within this framework, Bennett and Meyer set about to change the course of the 'Star Trek' franchise. Whereas 'The Motion Picture' had been conceived as an old-fashioned, intellectual science fiction epic, Meyer saw 'Wrath of Khan' as a rousing naval adventure in the vein of C.S. Forester's 'Horatio Hornblower' novels, with starships standing in for sailing ships. The screenplay is smartly structured to recap the events of 'Space Seed' for those viewers who hadn't seen it, and has few direct ties to 'The Motion Picture'. Of course, the movie also features a dramatic increase in action. The battle scenes between the Enterprise and Reliant are tensely directed, a highlight not only of this movie but the entire 'Star Trek' series.
Although disavowing the weighty philosophical overtones of 'The Motion Picture', 'Wrath of Khan' has a very strong script with tight plotting and great character interaction. Meyer pits two oversized personalities against one another, and allows the actors (Montalban and William Shatner) to ham it up to heart's content. The rest of the cast are well-developed (Chekov finally has his own storyline!), and the film climaxes with a moment of stunning emotional impact.
Afraid the movie would underperform at the box office, Paramount cut the budget for 'Wrath of Khan' significantly in comparison to 'The Motion Picture'. This is evident in a decreased scale and scope, as well as a few special effects shots directly recycled from the first movie. Nonetheless, the effects work by Industrial Light & Magic is very well done for a film of the era. The computer simulation of the Genesis Effect was one of the earliest uses of extensive CG animation. The final battle between Reliant and Enterprise in the Mutara Nebula remains quite visually striking. Meyer also saw fit to dump all of the drab-looking costumes from the first movie in favor of new burgundy uniforms that both call back the vibrant reds of the original series and also emphasize his nautical themes. The new wardrobe would become the dominant image of the next several movies.
Upon its release, 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' was an enormous hit. Fans and general moviegoers very much approved of the change in direction. Paramount immediately greenlit another sequel. 'Star Trek' was finally living up to its potential, and was well on its way to becoming an indelible pop culture phenomenon.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' has been released on the Blu-ray format as part of two separate box sets from Paramount Home Entertainment. The film is included in both the 7-disc 'Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection' (which includes the first six films in the series), and the 3-disc 'Star Trek: Motion Picture Trilogy' (which includes only the second through fourth films, comprising the "Genesis Arc"). In either case, the 'Wrath of Khan' disc itself is identical.
The Blu-ray contains only the 112-minute theatrical cut of the film. The slightly-longer 'Director's Edition' cut (116 minutes) that was released on DVD in 2002 has not been provided. That version of the film added a few extra character moments and a brief subplot about Scotty's nephew, but none of the changes were substantial.
A longstanding legend has it that the film's original theatrical prints presented the title as only 'Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan', and that the "II" wasn't added until a theatrical re-release to tie in with the next sequel. Some fans swear they've seen these prints, but I'm not entirely convinced. The majority of theatrical posters from 1982, as well as the teaser trailer contained on this disc, advertise the title with a "II." For what it's worth, the printing on the Blu-ray disc face says only 'Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan', yet the film transfer's opening titles display the full 'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan'.
Annoyingly, every single disc in the 'Original Motion Picture Collection' set automatically starts with a very loud trailer for the 2009 'Star Trek' feature film and an ad for the Blu-ray release of 'Star Trek: The Original Series – Season 1' before the main menu.
According to the disc packaging, 'Star Trek II' is the only film in the entire 'Original Motion Picture Collection' box set to be "fully restored in high definition with brilliant picture quality." The rest of the movies were just "digitally remastered." What exactly that wording means has been the subject of much debate in online discussion forums. I happen to think that the first movie in the set looks terrific, and will assume that 'Wrath of Khan' probably needed the most restoration work because its film elements started out in the worst shape.
With that said, the opening scene in 'Khan' doesn't inspire much confidence. "Restored" or not, the picture there is very soft and grainy. Things perk up shortly afterwards, fortunately. The movie retains a veneer of grain structure throughout (heaviest in the nebula sequence), more so than any of the other pictures in the set, but it looks natural and organic. The film appears to have less Digital Noise Reduction processing than any of the other 'Trek' Blu-rays.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is presented in the film's theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio. The image has fairly good detail and film-like textures. That close-up of the Ceti eel crawling into Chekov's ear looks faker than ever. However, this isn't the sharpest movie you'll ever see. Much of that is the result of the picture having been photographed largely in soft focus to hide the age of the actors. If anything, the high-def transfer reveals how almost comical the overuse of soft focus is. In one particular scene between Kirk and McCoy, Kirk holds a pair of glasses in front of him. The camera is focused on the glasses, not Kirk's face, and remains locked to that plane even when he lowers the glasses out of the frame. Similar examples abound.
In other respects, the disc has satisfyingly deep colors. Some viewers have pointed out that the color balance leans more toward blue than any previous video transfer. I'm not prepared to comment on which is more accurate to the original photography. Taken on its own, the Blu-ray doesn't look incorrect. Contrasts generally look good, though the transfer is a little dark overall. Some of the model shots of the starships seem perhaps a bit washed out, at least in comparison to the first movie, but that may simply be a difference in the way their respective effects houses shot them.
The lossless Dolby TrueHD 7.1 soundtrack is solid, but not quite as impressive as the first movie. The opening theme sounds a little thin. James Horner's score is clear but lacking in heft or impact. Although the music has good stereo separation, there isn't much sense of instrument delineation. Dialogue is a bit flat and occasionally clipped, which may possibly be endemic to the recording.
Surround usage is limited, even during the action scenes. That's not uncommon for a movie of this vintage, even if 'The Motion Picture' Blu-ray was remixed more aggressively. Phaser and transporter effects sound crisp and clear, and certain high-pitched sounds are well delivered. The sound design makes very effective use of silence in the final battle scene.
Fidelity is adequate for a 1982 movie but, considering that the first film sounds better, I think that a bit more probably could have been pulled from this soundtrack.
A few scenes in the movie have subtitled alien dialogue. The subtitles are all contained within the Scope movie image, and are safe for viewing on 2.35:1 Constant Image Height projection screens.
Nearly all of the bonus features from the 2-disc Director's Edition DVD have been ported over to the Blu-ray.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
Like the other movies in the set, this disc also has quite a bit of brand new material.
Will Work in Any Blu-ray Player
BD-Live: Requires Profile 2.0
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
Missing from the 2-disc Director's Edition DVD released in 2002 are the 116-minute 'Director's Edition' cut of the film and a text trivia commentary by Michael and Denise Okuda. The trivia in the text commentary was mostly consolidated into the new Library Computer feature.
The 'Star Trek: Original Motion Picture Collection' contains six feature films and an almost overwhelming volume of supplemental content, both old and new. As we'll detail in subsequent reviews, the video quality of some of the later movies in the set is a bit uneven. Nonetheless, all are significant improvements over their old DVD editions. Even with its high list price, the set is an easy recommendation for fans. Those who only care for the "Genesis Arc" will find the 3-disc 'Star Trek: Motion Picture Trilogy' a more affordable alternative.
'Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan' is widely considered the best of all the 'Trek' films, and for good reason. The high-def video and lossless audio on this entry are both very strong. It stands to reason that Paramount will eventually re-release the film in its longer 'Director's Edition' form. How long that will take, I can't say. In the meantime, this is easily the best presentation for the movie's theatrical cut yet released on home video.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.